De Revolutionibus by Copernicus and its historical impact

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Kim, Kyungmook
Term Paper, AP European History Class, March 2008

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. Author's Biography
III. Writing the Book - De Revolutionibus
IV. Impact
IV.1 The Scientific Community
IV.2 The Clergy
IV.2.1 Protestant Society
IV.2.2 Catholic Society
V. Conclusion
VI. Notes
VII. Bbliography

I. Introduction
            Nicholas Copernicus received the first copy of his work, De Revolutionibus orbium coelestium at the moment of his death in 1543. In this great book, he conjectured a possibility of heliocentric model of solar system. At this time, the whole world believed in a geocentric model, in which the universe revolves around the Earth. First developed by Ptolemy in his Almagest 13 centuries earlier, the geocentric model was strongly backed by the church and the pope due to several conveniences it offered to maintain the so-called 'order' of society. But by suggesting otherwise, Copernicus, though a highly cautious man, thus took the first step towards the Scientific Revolution of modern European history.

II. Author's Biography
            Nicholas Copernicus, born in February 19, 1473, spent most of his life as a canon of Catholic Church. Unlike many people think, clergyman was his vocation and astronomer was no more than an avocation to him. His father was a wealthy copper and a respected citizen of Torun (1), Poland. His mother also was born into a wealthy family from a patrician class. After his parents passed away, his uncle, a clergyman, financed his education, hoping Nicholas too would serve God. When Nicholas graduated from Cracow (2) Academy, he earned degrees in math and first got into contact with astronomy. Although his uncle wanted him to live as a clergyman in Frauenburg (3), there was no vacant position for him to occupy. He therefore went to Bologna and studied law, even though his mind was constantly occupied with astronomy. In 1501 he finally was given a place as canon in Frauenburg, but obtained permission to continue his study of medicine in Padua, and law in Ferrara. By 1505, Copernicus was one of the foremost educated men of his time, fully equipped with several academic degrees needed to accomplish any task as a canon. From then he spent most of his life in Frauenburg. As this was situated in a territory much disputed, he often displayed his talent as a military commander, but as his utmost interest had always been astronomy, he devoted much of his private life into observing the night sky and writing of the book De Revolutionibus, which was printed only in the very year of his death in 1543. He was a respected man of his time and his work was reviewed by a number of influential men ? the Roman pope being one of them.

III. Writing of the book : De Revolutionibus
            In 1513, Copernicus bought 800 stones and a bucket of lime to build his own astrological observatory. His main research target was motions on the heavenly spheres. He based his observations closely on the Almagest but as more observations were made, it was soon evident that an amendment on the theory was necessary. One important point to notice is that Copernicus should not be considered as the first modern astronomer, but as the last medieval astronomer. As a conservative man, instead of looking at the whole picture from a completely different view, he based all his observations and thoughts on ancient theories, and developed his own ideas from the past. He worked not as a leading figure of Kepler or Newton, but as a disciple of Ptolemy. His aim was neither to create a radical controversy nor to prove traditional astronomy to be trickery, but simply to recover its simplicity and purity. And in his view, theory of Ptolemy was neither simple nor pure. The complex geometrical structures and dozens of unnecessary circles in geocentric model seemed more like a 'monster'. He was most discontented with the notion from the geocentric model that all spheres in the universe, regardless of their distance from the Earth, move in exactly the same speed around the Earth. So he came up with his own theory. He believed that the system should be both mathematically correct and at the same time, aesthetically simple. This would only be achieved by placing sun at the center of the system and all the other planets, including the Earth, revolving around the sun. Speaking of his sun-centered system, he writes :

            "I find it much more easy to grant that than to unhinge the understanding by an almost infinite multitude of spheres ? as those who keep the earth at the centre of the world are forced to do. But we should rather follow the wisdom of nature, which, as it takes very great care not to have produced anything superfluous or useless, often prefers to endow one thing with many effects". (4).

Figure 1 : Copernican Heliocentrism (5)

            A heliocentric model was refined, beautiful and economical to Copernicus. This idea was first published in his short dissertation Commentariolus in 1514, published using a pseudonym. This was because he was afraid that the idea would not be accepted by his colleagues and by the Catholic society in which he lived. Indeed, a person of his rank and position had every reason to be careful about publishing such an idea. The dissertation began to spread around the society actively in the 1530s and to his surprise, Commentariolus received a positive response. In 1533 bishop Widmannstetter delivered a copy to Pope Clement VII and few Archbishops which again aroused a positive interest among them. On 1st November 1536, Schönberg, Cardinal of Capua, wrote a letter to Copernicus, encouraging him to publish his idea :

            "Some years ago word reached me concerning your proficiency, of which everybody constantly spoke. At that time I began to have a very high regard for you ... For I had learned that you had not merely mastered the discoveries of the ancient astronomers uncommonly well but had also formulated a new cosmology. In it you maintain that the earth moves; that the sun occupies the lowest, and thus the central, place in the universe ... Therefore with the utmost earnestness I entreat you, most learned sir, unless I inconvenience you, to communicate this discovery of yours to scholars, and at the earliest possible moment to send me your writings on the sphere of the universe together with the tables and whatever else you have that is relevant to this subject ... " (6)

            But even this encouraging letter was not enough for him to publish the book he was working on. Later a young German astronomer called Rheticus who read the dissertation became a pupil under Copernicus in 1539. After two years of research and writing, Rheticus published Narratio Prima, outlining the essence of Copernicus' theory. This book, along with the favorable response to Commentariolus and the letter of encouragement from the Archbishop, caused Copernicus to finally publish his book. He gave the manuscript to his close friend Giese, bishop of Chelmo (7) to be delivered to Rheticus for printing. After assigning the work to a publisher called Petreius in Nuremberg (8), Rheticus left the town because of severe opposition from Martin Luther and Melanchthon. Before departure he requested one of the local Lutheran pastors, Andreas Osiander, to take over his place as a technical advisor. Osiander played a significant role in the impact of the book and this will be dealt in the next section. So the book, De Revolutionibus orbium coelestium was published in 1543. Legend has it that that the first copy was sent to Copernicus, and placed on his hand at the moment of his death.

IV. Impact
            De Revolutionibus orbium coelestium, considered by some to be one of the greatest books ever written, was equally significant in its impact on the society. It was received by two different groups : Scientists and the Clergy. There was a mixture of feelings from scientific society, a definitely negative response from Lutheran (or Protestant) society, and a feeling of ambivalence (only initially) from Catholic society, which in the later years was most fervent in suppressing all arguments that were even slightly relating to this theory.

IV.1 The Scientific Community
            There were few who agreed with the content of the book, and even fewer who became completely immersed with the idea. But most were against it, citing both astronomical and physical flaws in the theory.
            Astronomers criticized the theory based upon trigonometric parallax. If the Earth revolves around the sun, according to the book, the diameter of revolution was about 300,000,000 km. Therefore, angular position of two observations of a star observed from one end of circumference and the other (6 month period) must change. But to the naked eyes of scientists in the 16th century, no change was observed. This criticism were definitely on the right track. What they needed was a telescope, which was not invented until 1608, not used in astronomy until 1609 (9) and not good enough to detect the minor difference until 1838 (10). Therefore, those who support heliocentric model at the time had no concrete evidence but could only shout out that the universe is too huge and the parallax is too small to be detected with naked human eyes. Considering that the traditional astronomers regarded size of the universe to be as small as Saturn, these claims of Copernicus without a concrete proof was repudiated severely.
            Then there were bitter criticisms from physicists. According to calculations in the book, velocity of Earth revolving around the sun would be approximately 117,000 km/h. A storm caused by this velocity is more than good enough to sweep out the entire world. But there was no such storm. In the same way, an apple dropped would fall on the ground few kilometers behind, because while the apple was dropping, the Earth would have moved that much already. The law of inertia by Sir Isaac Newton, which explains this phenomenon, was not published until 1687. Some asked, 'If the Earth revolves, where is the centrifugal force forcing objects on Earth to be pushed outside ?' and some asked, 'what force is pulling such a massive sphere as the Earth?' This criticism expressed reasonable scientific doubt which, at the time, could not be explained. Therefore, although the Copernican theory initially aroused interest, most scientists soon disregarded it. But history has often been made by individuals who contradict established beliefs. De Revolutionibus opened up a new possibility in the field of astronomy and sparked a few eager scientists to continue researching and developing the idea further. The idea was passed on to the new generations such as Brahe, Kepler and Galileo. With passionate work of these astronomers, and with the development of astronomical devices that allowed more accurate observations, followers of Copernicus and De Revolutionibus eventually repudiated every single one of the arguments raised against the heliocentric theory.

IV.2 The Clergy
            Unlike nowadays, Science was not so powerful for a couple of centuries after the book was published. Rather, religion dominated many people's thoughts and lives. Maybe this was the reason Osiander added an unsigned preface to De Revolutionibus. As partially mentioned before, Rheticus nominated Osiander to be technical advisor in printing of De Revolutionibus and Osiander, a firm Lutheran theologian, decided to change part of the preface the way he wanted it to be, without permission from the author who was dying on his bed. It said that the model described in the book was not intended as a description of the way the Universe really is, but as a mathematical device to simplify calculations involving the movement of planets. This made Copernicus a person who had simply created nothing more than a useful fancy fabrication. Some historians argue that this nefarious act by Osiander ironically helped accommodation of the theory by wrapping up the contents appropriately for everyone's appetite. The statement by these historians may have a sense of truth to it, but this was definitely not the case in Protestant society of the 16th century.

IV.2.1 Protestant Society
            Nowadays, the common lore is that the Catholic Church immediately condemned Copernicus and his system, while enlightened Protestants eagerly embraced both. In fact, it was the protestants who eagerly showed negative response, even before the publication of the book. Martin Luther, founder of Lutheranism, expressed a strong disapproval to the idea of heliocentric solar system. The quote below is from Luther's Talebook, or record of dinner-table conversations :

            "There is talk of a new astrologer who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody were moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved. But that is how things are nowadays : when a man wishes to be clever he must needs invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best ! The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth." (11)

            Thomas Kuhn in his book The Copernican Revolution (12) suggests that this was because the radical protestants at the time believed solely on the Bible and nothing else, viewing the Bible as "the single fundamental source of Christian knowledge", as opposed to the Catholic Church which embraced doctrinal issues that are not necessarily mentioned in the Bible, allowing more flexibility in dealing with science. And the heliocentric system was a clear contradiction to the bible :

            On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel :

                       "O sun, stand still over Gibeon,
                       O moon, over the Valley of Aijalon."
                       So the sun stood still,
                       and the moon stopped,
                       till the nation avenged itself on its enemies,
            as it is written in the Book of Jashar. (Joshua 10:13)

            By commanding the sun to stop in the middle of the sky for a couple of hours and then letting it move again, Joshua implicitly proved in the bible that it is the sun which revolves around the Earth. Luther's main lieutenant Melanchthon followed up by finding other sources in Bible that testified against the Copernican system and soon the whole Protestant society were using the Bible as the main weapon to attack the idea. But the Protestant churches did not have the powers of enforcement that the Catholics had.

IV.2.2 Catholic Society
            De Revolutionibus was seriously discussed among Archbishops of Catholic Church, both for and against. Copernican system did not use the equant which was more challenging to use in practice, and therefore heliocentric system was more appealing in mathematical perspective, and easier to use. Indeed this system formed the basis of Gregorian Calendar Reform of 1582. But 'convenience' was not all that the Catholic Church was concerned with. Formally acknowledging De Revolutionibus would consequently imply acceptance of a whole range of related theories regarding physics, and this caused some serious trouble. For example, if there were other bodies just like Earth, surely there were to be other humans on other planets. Then, how was it possible that they were descendents of Adam and Eve ? How would they have inherited the original sin ? Or, if the earth is a planet and therefore a celestial body located away from the center of the universe, what becomes of man's intermediate but focal position between hell and heaven ? Worst of all, if the universe is infinite, as many of the later Copernicans thought, where can God's Throne be located ?
            Despite these arousing questions, it is not so surprising to know that Catholic Church did not take any action for eight decades after the publication, and there are several reasons for this. First of all, Copernicus himself was a devout Catholic who served God as a canon of Frauenburg for his entire life. Also, he had a letter of recommendation to publish the idea by an Archbishop, and even dedicated the book to Pope Paul III. Finally there was the Osiander's modification to the preface which made the content no more than a 'useful calculation method'. So long as the idea did not spread around and debase the belief in God of commoners, heliocentricism was not to cause a problem within Catholic Church.
            By the beginning of the 17th century, however, the idea no longer was tolerable. In 1609, Galileo Galilei first used the telescope to observe the sky. Though not the first to invent the telescope, he made his own telescope with magnifying power of 20x and with this he was able to make discoveries that brought him and his theories immediate fame throughout Europe. He provided the most compelling evidences for the heliocentric model and peeled off its notion of 'useful fabrication'. In 1616, the church officially declares the theory "philosophically false and an erroneous belief", bans De Revolutionibus, and starts the war against science.
            To why the Church suddenly turned its back on Copernicus, many factors exist. One factor would be the spread of deeper theological implications in Earth's motion among commoners. But that solely does not explain the severity with which the church treated the science. Copernican doctrines were most condemned during the Catholic Reformation which had one of its aims to meet Protestant criticism. Considering that protestant leaders were most fervent in denouncing the Copernicanism, one might argue over the possibility of anti-Copernicanism in Catholic society initiated, in part, by Protestant influence. In those days, once the Church decided to go against something, it had all the necessary power and institutions to do so. The Council of Trent first met in 1545 after the publication of De Revolutionibus, along with the Jesuit Order, made sure that everyone knows what they did not like through torture, conviction without trial, and execution.
            Ironically, after being a possible impetus for the outset of war between religion and science, the Protestant churches fairly quickly abandoned their opposition to Copernicanism when they realized that the logic and overwhelming evidences were clearly in favour of the sun-centered system. But the Catholic Church, being a much bigger-scale, more unified and tradition-bound institution, was left clinging to its anti-Copernican position for a long time afterwards. The book remained on the list of forbidden books until 1758, when it was removed by Pope Benedict XIV. In fact it was only as recently as 1992 that Pope John Paul II lifted its edict of Inquisition against Galileo. Thus the Catholic Church is now the religious institution identified with perhaps the most notorious anti-science episode in history. (14)

V Conclusion
            So far I have discussed the history regarding De Revolutionibus, from the author's biography and writing of the book to the historical consequences attributed to the book among different societies. It is evident that the significance and the sheer impact of the book excel that of most other books in the history. It is important to note, however, that De Revolutionibus did not provoke an immediate violent revolution. As a matter of fact, it was republished in 1566 but even till then not many had read the book. But rather, the idea was sublime by itself. It showed the way to break through a stereotyped idea set by former principles and rules. It showed a fresh new perspective of studying and organizing the nature. This idea, along with a contemporary book called De humani corporis fabrica libri septem by Vesalius, changed the view of looking at ourselves ? No longer did people place authority over observation, but made a progress step by step based upon experience. Yes, De Revolutionibus was written by a man highly cautious of society and its reaction towards him and his work. He was no man of revolutionary figure at all. But little did he know at the moment of his death that this book would inspire Galileo Galilei, Sir Isaac Newton and many other historical figures to overcome prevailing notions and seek the truth of nature based on experiment and logic.


(1)      in German spelled Thorn
(2)      English spelling; in Polish spelled Krakow
(3)      German spelling; in Polish spelled Frombork
(4)      Copernicus, De revolutionibus. Transl. Charles Wallis. 1994. p.526,
(5)      Wikipedia : De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium
(6)      Copernicus, Nicholas. On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.
(7)      Polish spelling; in German spelled Kulm
(8)      English spelling; in German apelled Nürnberg
(9)      Wikipedia : History of telescope.
(10)      Wikipedia : Parallax.
(11)      Pogge, Richard W., A Brief Note on Religious Objections to Copernicus.
(12)      Kuhn 1959 p.193, quoted after Mano Singham's Web Journal
(13)      Holy Bible, New International Version. 1984.
(14)      Mano Singham's Web Journal


Note : websites quoted below were visited in March 2008.
1.      Copernicus, Nicholas. De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. Transl. Charles Wallis. Encyclopaedia Britannica : The Great Books of the western world. 2nd ed. 1994.
2.      Gribbin, John. A Brief History of Science. UK: The Ivy Press, 1998.
3.      Kuhn, Thomas. The Copernican Revolution : Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought. Vintage Books, 1959.
4.      Mason, Stephen F. A History of the Sciences. New York: Collier Books, 1962.
5.      McClellan III, James, and Harold Dorn. Science and Technology in World History. Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.
6.      Pogge, Richard W. A Brief Note on Religious Objections to Copernicus. 2 January 2005. 10 March 2008. <>
7.      Reichenbach, Hans. From Copernicus to Einstein. Transl. Jungkyu Woo. Jee-Sung-Ee-Sam Press, 1995.
8.      Ronan, Colin A. Science : Its History and Development Among the World's Cultures. Facts on File, 1983.
9.      Sutcliffe A. and A.P.D. Sutcliffe. Stories from Science: II. Physics. London: Cambridge University Press, 1973.
10.      "The Role of Protestant Opposition to Copernicus" Mano Singham's Web Journal., last revised on 26 April 2005. <>
11.      The Holy Bible, New International Version. By International Bible Society: Colorado Springs, (1973), 1984
12.      Article : De Revolutionibus orbium coelestium, from Wikipedia English edition.
13.      Article : History of Telescope, from Wikipedia.
14.      Article : Parallax, from Wikipedia.
15.      Copernicus, Nicholas. On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, posted on : Calendars Through the Ages,